How to tell the difference between menstrual bleeding & spotting

Written by lynn lauren
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Many women who menstruate have questions about their periods. Is your bleeding normal? How much is a heavy flow? How much is a light flow? What is the difference between actual menstrual bleeding and spotting? Once you have had several periods with varying flows, you will begin to understand the differences in flow and how to better prepare for the sanitary needs that they require.

Skill level:


  1. 1

    Look at your underwear each time you use the rest room. If you notice small amounts of blood, a few spots that do not soak through the underwear, you are spotting. This usually occurs at the beginning or end of your period. Sometimes, it occurs when you have hormone fluctuations, or it can be due to breakthrough bleeding while on birth control. Wear a panty liner or thin pad during these times to protect your underwear and clothing from staining.

  2. 2

    Mark your periods on your calendar. Day 1 of your cycle begins on the first day of bleeding, and the last day is the one before you start your next period. Most women's cycles are around 28 days in length, with 23 to 32 days considered a normal range. If your bleeding is more than just a few spots of blood on your underwear, and it is about time for your next period, you are having your period.

  3. 3

    Note your flow on your calendar for a few months to get an idea of how heavy or light your period is each day. Some women start out very heavy and then taper off until the end. A heavy flow requires a thicker pad or tampon and changing every few hours. A normal flow requires a tampon or pad to be changed every four to six hours. If your flow requires even less than that, it is considered very light. If you have to change a thin pad or panty liner more than a few times a day, it is still menstrual bleeding. If it is less than that, it is spotting.

Tips and warnings

  • Spotting can indicate any number of conditions, some of them serious, including miscarriage, low thyroid, vaginal injury, cancer and undiagnosed infection. Most of the time, these are not the issues, but unexplained and abnormal spotting should be discussed with your doctor.
  • Some women, even those who track their periods on their calendar, have no real idea when their period is going to start because of their irregular schedule. It is a good idea for those women to not only carry pads or tampons with them at all times, but to wear a panty liner in case they are worried about starting suddenly and without notice.

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